Bobby Charles Biography
Claim to Fame: Singer-Songwriter
DOB: February 21, 1938
Date of Death: January 14, 2010
Diabetes Type: unknown
Quote: “Nobody in my family wanted me to get into the music business, but I always loved it.”
Bobby Charles was born Robert Charles Guidry on February 21, 1938 in Abbeville, Louisiana to a gas company truck driver. He was an ethnic Cajun who grew up listening to Cajun music, as well as the country and western music of Hank Williams, Sr. As a kid, Charles used to pray to become a songwriter, and at age 14, he joined a band that entertained high school dances. In addition to entertaining, Charles’ younger years included scrapes with the law, a failed marriage, and overall excess.
Charles could not read music or play an instrument, but writing songs came easily to him. At age 15, he credited a Fats Domino performance as having “changed [his] life forever” and is now known for writing hits for Domino, as well as Bill Haley & the Comets and Frogman Henry. Charles helped to establish the south Louisiana swamp pop musical genre, composing such hits as “See You Later, Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans,” and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.” The popularity of “See You Later, Alligator” led a local record-store owner to recommend Charles to the Chicago-based Chess Records label; Charles sang his song over the phone and was immediately signed. He shocked the label’s owners on his first visit to Chicago, as they had been expecting to meet a young black singer and had arranged a promotional tour of African-American venues. Charles had often been referred to as black, when in fact he was white, because of his south Louisiana-influenced rhythm and blues vocal style.
Charles wrote a song called “The Jealous Kind” in the 1970s; Joe Cocker recorded it in 1976, followed by Ray Charles, Delbert McClinton, Etta James, and Johnny Adams. His friends and fans included Neil Young, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Willie Nelson. A reluctant performer, The Band invited him to play with them at The Last Waltz, a farewell concert, in 1976, where he played “Down South in New Orleans” with Dr. John and The Band, and participated in the concert’s final song, “I Shall Be Released.” Years later, Charles backed out at the last minute after agreeing to stage a comeback at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, alluding to health issues as the reason for his absence.
Although Charles’ songs were perhaps more famous than he, Charles was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to Louisiana music in 2007. After dealing with various personal disasters ranging from hurricanes to fires to cancer, Charles’ annual royalties allowed him to live a comfortable life despite being cheated out of some songwriting credits and publishing rights along the way.
Charles lived quietly at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico until Hurricane Rita destroyed his house in 2005 and he moved back to Abbeville. Due to release a new album, “Timeless,” in February of 2010, Charles collapsed in his home and died on January 14, 2010 at age 71. Charles had diabetes and was in remission from kidney cancer. He is survived by four sons.
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